Wednesday, 16 October 2013

People: a play by Alan Bennett, National Theatre on tour, The Lowry, Salford, 15.10.13

Lady Dorothy Stacpoole (Siân Phillips), former model and socialite, is approaching her dotage and sitting on a fortune in the shape of a crumbling family home stuffed to the gills with antiques. It’s just the kind of stately pile the National Trust would love to get their hands on, and that’s just what Dorothy’s sister June, an Archdeacon, has in mind. Horrified at the prospect of people swarming about the place, Dorothy is persuaded to consider a rival offer from a mysterious wealthy sect who promise to pay over the odds and keep the house mercifully free of people. After all, ‘People spoil things...’

History is once again Alan Bennett’s theme, specifically our attempts at preserving heritage. Oddly enough, it only becomes apparent that the play is actually a farce in the second half of the production, round about the time you notice the stage is peopled with two porn actors, a camp bearded Welshman and a bishop. Nobody actually mounts the stage with a toilet brush at any point, but subtlety takes a back seat during Bennett’s medium-to-heavy roasting of The National Trust and the Church of England, whose membership ‘is virtually the same’.

Dorothy nobly resists becoming ‘a metaphor for England itself’, though the play doesn’t do much to help, variously accessorising her with British hits of the ‘60s, Henry VIII’s rosary, and a collection of chamber pots containing original deposits from the likes of Kipling and Elgar. Iris (long-time companion but actually half-sister to Dorothy, played beautifully, if quietly, by Brigit Forsyth) punctuates proceedings with some glib relief, delivering a mix of blunt truth and endearing misunderstanding.

Overall though, the too-varied plot threads and dramatic motifs, and some oddly mismatched characters, drag on the play’s momentum, but the set is a character in itself, majestic and ramshackle, there are witty one-liners aplenty, and Dorothy is a gem – sad, but not sentimental, rugged and forward-facing, even against the odds – in fact, terribly English, you might say, and certainly worth preserving.

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